WRR 4.4 1 AUGUST 2007
“...every woman, who won her freedom, by this perilous undertaking (fleeing slavery), deserves commemoration.”
It smelled like the cook had dug up a whole bed of onion for her gravy. The scent soothed Ilsie an excellent cook who favored seasonings-as she put the baby to her breast.
The nipple slipped from the child’s mouth. Her head lolled back.
“Let me see this baby,” the cook said, and drew near. “I like children, but the Lord never saw fit to give me none.”
Ilsie guided the baby to her nipple again. And again. “Bound to be hungry. Ain’t had hardly nothing today.”
The cook wrung her hands. “Lordy me!” She touched Ilsie’s shoulder.
“Darling,” she said, “lay her down. The baby’s dead.”
“This child is ‘sleep, is all.”
Ilsie held the tiny girl at arm’s length and studied the small exquisite face: button nose, shapely mouth, brown eyes open, empty. Ilsie recalled the herbs she’d taken to bring down her blood when she thought she was carrying the overseer’s child, and sometimes when she thought it was Ben’s. She had birthed enough children into whippings. But this baby had held on despite all. “Sweet Jesus, don’t take her from me now!”
Now the onion smell made Ilsie want to throw up.
“Lordy me! Such a pretty thing.”
Ilsie gathered her daughter into her arms and bent forward, as if shielding the baby. Tears streamed down Ilsie’s face. She rocked the baby, sang to it, rocked and sang. Her song rose to a wail that stopped. Ilsie turned toward the cook, her eyes rolled back. She slid off the chair still clutching her baby.
Madame Reine LeJour sat nude at the pianoforte in her private rooms playing a Bach three-part invention. One worked up a sweat with Bach in summer if one played with spirit. Naked, she didn’t mind.
She loved the intricacy of the three-part inventions, the way Bach introduced a musical theme, then restated it in the composition’s high, middle, and low voices. Bach’s mathematical precision sharpened her thinking.
Reine, twenty-eight, had come to Philadelphia six years earlier with a few good frocks and raging ambition. She’d clawed her way up from a fille de joie in someone else’s whorehouse to her own establishment. She’d acquired her furnishings at bankruptcy sales after the crash of ’33. Her own place was a leap forward, but not far enough.
She meant to have a house second to none. Life had already placed her second, if it was true that she was colored. The French nuns who’d raised her in the New Orleans orphanage had hinted at it when she annoyed them. Ever since, the thought worked on her like grit she couldn’t get out of her mouth.
Reine knew that her almond-shaped, green eyes and slender nose betrayed nothing. Who would question the soft waves in her lustrous black hair? Her full lips would make only a discerning black person think twice, but her white customers saw only lusciousness. The lemon salve she used on her ivory skin maintained its color. Some fair-skinned, colored women darkened with age. Better take no chances.
Yet, one of her few memories of the days before the orphanage came to her in dreams. She snuggled in her grandmother’s lap, the only comforting place she could recall. She would run a pudgy hand over her grandmother’s enfolding arms, but she never quite saw their color.
Reine played on and thought about the land speculation deal she’d jumped into. She was riding the dice on it, for sometimes she couldn’t resist a gamble. Had she acted too hastily? She’d heard about the land and likely profits through the eavesdropping room, a converted pantry behind her back parlor. Her girls could enter it from the kitchen and listen to conversations.
The land deal could bring in a half-year’s take. She could redecorate the house, draw the richest men. Money would lift her above the question of white or colored. But what if the deal went bad? She shrugged, as if to shake off the thought. She was playing the last measures of Bach and weighing the odds against her when the wailing began.
It wouldn’t be one of her girls faking a cri d’extase. Too early in the day for ecstasy. Reine threw on a silk robe and dashed from her suite. She raced downstairs and brushed past four tapestries that showed men and women coupling in different positions.
She shot through the house. The keening had brought her girls to the kitchen. Dusky, statuesque Tulip all big eyes and pouty mouth hovered near the woman’s chair. Flame, a short yellow woman with reddish hair, stood holding one of her whips- did she ever put them down? and looked on.
“Saints, preserve us,” said Bridget, a nervous young Irishwoman.
India, petite and dark-skinned, patted the swooning woman’s hands. Mina and Maud, Reine’s twin maids, brown and saucy, picked up the woman’s hat and fanned her with it. Ralston, the bouncer, a solid white man with an impassive face, turned to Reine. She dismissed him with a tilt of her head.
“Sarah, who is this woman?” Reine advanced on the cook.
“She came to the door just now and asked could she set and nurse her baby. I said yes.” The cook wrung her hands. “When she took the baby out the shawl, it was dead. She didn’t want to believe it. Then she saw it was so and screamed. Lordy me!”
Reine stood over the woman and the baby. “Une belle enfante, si innocente.” Never had she seen such a beautiful child, even with her discreet visits to the colored orphanage.
Reine gazed at the woman, who moaned. Too thin, but she had good looks, appealing freckles on her light-brown skin, a healthy look under the dirt on her face. The woman’s breasts were leaking. How many men dreamed of tasting warm, sweet mother’s milk? “Mon Dieu!”
“Maud, you can take care of the baby, non?”
“Tulip, you are this woman’s height. Can you spare a dress? It will be big on her but it will do for now.”
“I’ll get you a new one.”
“I can spare two.”
“Such a coup for us!” Reine said. Why hadn’t it occurred to her sooner to have girls with milk? “This woman,” Reine said, “I will see to her myself.”